Love Letters To The European Union: Golden Touch

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week, a sharpshooter that blossomed under an oppressive regime, and a World Cup shock in Pasadena that makes even the most ardent progressive long for a simpler time, when the days were long, the goal nets were enormous, and the attacking football from an unfancied Eastern European team was sublime. It’s Popescu, Petrescu, Hagi and Dumitrescu. Este România

 

The Player: Dudu Georgescu

Dudu

Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rise to power in 1965 looked to signal the end of a destructive and oppressive Soviet regime in Romania. The post-war occupation by the Red Army saw governmental elections fraudulently won, the country’s natural resources drained, and dissenters of the establishment either deported or sent to labour camps. In the first few years of his premiership, Ceaușescu wrestled Romania’s independence from the USSR, openly condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia and restoring an element of freedom to the press, a liberty withdrawn under the previous government. This period of relative peace and prosperity would be shortlived however, as Ceaușescu turned Romania into a totalitarian state, using the secret police to conduct mass surveillance and manipulating the national media to further his cause. Drunk on power, he would grasp at every opportunity to bring glory to his version of Romania.

By the time Ceaușescu took office Dudu Georgescu had already been exhibiting his precocious talent with the Progresul Bucureșt youth team. Signed up by his brother at the age of thirteen, the imposing teenager would make his debut for the Bancarii in 1969, before playing a key role in the club’s promotion back to Divizia A the following year with fifteen goals. Georgescu’s impressive performances alerted fellow strugglers CSM Resita, and half a season with the Reșițenii brought another impressive return of seven goals from twelve games, including two in a 4-1 win against champions-elect Dinamo București, which was enough to convince them to pay for his services.

Or rather, pluck him from Resita’s helpless grasp. During the 70s and 80s it was not uncommon for Dinamo or Steaua – Romania’s other powerhouse club – to poach players from smaller teams without so much as offering a transfer fee. Given that it made sense for the best teams to have the best players available when it came to competing with other nations in European competition, it was not in the government’s interest to sanction such pickpocketing. In the event, the move proved to be a catalyst for the finest spell of Georgescu’s career. Twenty-one goals in his first season on Ştefan cel Mare Street wasn’t enough to see Dinamo record back-to-back title wins, but the following year the striker plundered thirty-three in thirty-one appearances, lifting his first league trophy along with the European Golden Shoe.

The brainchild of French sports paper L’Équipe, the European Golden Show had first been awarded in 1968 to Benfica’s Eusebio. Subsequent seasons saw strikers from Bulgaria to Belgrade pick up the award, with Gerd Muller winning it twice thanks to his exploits with Bayern Munich. It was no surprise that Georgescu had earned the award. At six foot he was a powerhouse in the air, but equally adept at firing a rocket into the top corner from long range. By the time of his first championship he had already gained international recognition, and would go on to score twenty-one times in forty games for Romania. The goalscoring success of a native footballer also raised the profile of the game in Romania, something which had not escaped the notice of now-President Ceaușescu, whose reign was becoming increasingly damaging to the country.

The following season Georgescu could *only* manage a total of thirty-one goals in thirty-two games as Steaua pipped Dinamo to the title; enough to earn him the second of four consecutive top scorer awards in Divizia A, along with the accolade of Romanian Footballer of the Year, but edged out by Cypriot Sotiris Kaiafas in the Golden Shoe stakes. Ceaușescu would ensure its return soon enough. In 76/77, Dinamo’s star man struck a staggering forty-seven league goals, over half of his team’s total for the season. It has long been theorised that, as part of his thirst to retain an outward image of success to the rest of Europe, the Romanian president had played a part in some of the champions’ results throughout the season. Victories over Sportul Studenţesc (7-1), and Resita (5-0) were atypical of a relatively tight league, and the fact that Georgescu had helped himself to a glut of goals in both raised suspicions. Either way, that 47 goal haul remained the highest return for a Golden Shoe winner until Lionel Messi’s half century in 2011/12.

That remarkable season would prove the apex of Georgescu’s career, as the man nicknamed ‘Fenomenul’ began to drift past his peak. Another twenty-four goals in the following season was the bright spot in a disappointing campaign for Dinamo, and though he would stay with the Red Dogs for a further five years and win two more championships, diminishing returns saw him score just fifty-one more times in red and white.  Spells with Bacau, Gloria Buzău, Flame Moreni, Muscelul Campulung and Urziceni Union followed, before Georgescu hung up his boots in 1988.

A year later, Ceaușescu was dead. A revolt against the government in Timisoara resulted in armed forces firing in the protesting crowd and killing civilians. In a bid to calm national fervour, the president held a meeting to denounce the Timisoara protests as ‘fascist agitators’ bent on ‘destroying socialism’. Ceaușescu’s comments only served to anger those gathered, and with the mood beginning to turn, the president and his wife fled for cover. Now established as the targets for a military coup, the pair escaped Bucharest, but were eventually captured by police near Târgoviște and handed over to the Romanian army. On Christmas Day 1989, both Ceaușescu and his wife were executed.

The European Golden shoe would be won one more time by a Romanian, Dinamo’s Dorin Mateuț, before L’equipe decided to disband the award in 1991 following disputes over the winner. In 1996 it was revived by the European Sports Media, with Barcelona’s Brazilian striker Ronaldo its first recipient. Who better to follow ‘Fenomenul’ than ‘O Fenômeno’?

 

The Game: Romania 3-2 Argentina, 1994

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Romania’s route to the 1994 World Cup in the United States had already packed in more drama than the Calista Flockhart vehicle Brothers & Sisters before the Tricolores had even arrived in California. Head coach Anghel Iordănescu had seen his side take control of a tricky looking group with some dominant performances, before a defeat to the Republic of Czechs and Slovaks had left their qualification hopes hanging in the balance. On a tense night at Cardiff Arms Park, Romania knew that defeat would deny them a place at the tournament, and send opponents Wales through. They were halfway there at the break, courtesy of Gheorghe Hagi’s speculative effort sneaking under the usually reliable Neville Southall, but after Dean Saunders had equalised, a soft penalty was awarded for Dan Petrescu’s foul on Gary Speed, and Wales were gifted the chance to put one foot on a transatlantic flight. Paul Bodin, so often dependable from the spot at Swindon Town, blasted the kick against the crossbar, handing the initiative back to the visitors. With the Welsh pushing forward for a winner, Romania broke forward and Florin Răducioiu sealed their qualification.

It was only Romania’s third appearance at the World Cup in the post-war era, having been dumped out by Wales’ neighbours Ireland on penalties four years earlier, and barely making an impression at Mexico in 1970. On that occasion they’d been drawn in a group with holders England and favourites Brazil, but while the draw was somewhat kinder in the States, there was still no guarantee of reaching the knockouts. Drawn in Group A, Iordănescu’s team would have to overcome the host nation, who were slowly developing into a useful international side, as well as dark horses Switzerland. The biggest test, though, would come in their opening game, against a Colombia team tipped by Pele to win the tournament. With Faustino Asprilla and Carlos Valderrama at their flamboyant best, La Tricolor had posted the most impressive performance in qualifying, by demolishing Argentina on their own patch.

At this World Cup, however, Romania paid no heed to reputations. Răducioiu and Hagi ran riot on a blistering Californian day, as the Europeans ran out 3-1 winners. Any suggestions that they’d breeze through the group were quickly dispelled against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland however, as three second-half goals gave The Big Plus a 4-1 victory, and left Romania needing a win in their meeting with the USA to guarantee a place in the second round. In the event, Petrescu’s eighteenth minute goal was enough to see them through.

Despite winning their group Romania were handed a tough test in the second round, with Argentina finishing third on goal difference behind Nigeria and Bulgaria. A topsy-tuvey Group D had seen the Hristo Stoitchkov-inspired Bulgarians knock Argentina off top spot in the final game, but it wasn’t the biggest loss La Albiceleste had suffered in the tournament. Having scored a spectacular goal and performing the now infamous celebration against Greece, Diego Maradona was called in for a random drugs test following the win over Nigeria, eventually testing positive for ephedrine and being thrown out of the tournament. Though in the twilight of his career, Maradona’s presence in the squad had been vital, and his teammates had mourned his removal. While Argentina were without Maradona, Romania had the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ in Hagi.

Even so, La Albiceleste remained one of the favourites for the tournament, and were expected to overcome a Romania side that had never reached a World Cup quarter-final. With a forward line consisting of Fiorentina’s fearsome Gabriel Batistuta, Roma’s Abel Balbo, and the so-called ‘New Maradona’ Ariel Ortega, it looked unlikely that a side who’d conceded four against Switzerland would keep the two-time world champions in check.

But eleven minutes in, the shock was on. Lining up a free-kick on the left-hand side of the penalty area, Steaua Bucharest’s Ilie Dumitrescu took a leaf from the Hagi playbook and whipped an effort up into the far corner of the net, fooling the entire Argentina defence, and leaving Luis Islas grasping at thin air. Five minutes later, the scores were level. Daniel Prodan, in a desperate bid to deny Batistuta a sight of goal, pulled the striker back by the arm, eliciting a sack-of-spuds response from the luscious-locked forward; penalty Argentina. Batistuta himself rolled the ball into the bottom corner, and normal service looked to be resumed.

Seconds later Batistuta was as it again, launching his body over a tackle and offering the referee a quizzical look, only for Pierluigi Pairetto to wave play on. Coincidentally, this would be the Italian official’s last game of the tournament, sent home by FIFA for ‘failing to meet the expected standards’ in this match. Regaining possession from the tackle, Romania broke forward at pace, the majestic Hagi conducting the play from the right wing, playing a one-two before finding the clever run of Dumitrescu and laying on his second goal of the afternoon. After the build up of the South American attack, it was the forwards in yellow stealing all the headlines.

From the start of the second half, Argentina began to pile on the pressure. Camping out inside Romania’s half, pushing men forward and forcing set pieces, a second equaliser looked only a matter of time. From Ortega’s corner, Miodrag Belodedici headed clear, and Fernando Caceres stumbled on the ball, allowing Dumitrescu to nick it off him and motor into the Argentina half. Rather than head for glory, the forward checked inside, waited a beat, and repaid a favour by feeding the ball into the path of the onrushing Hagi. The emphatic finish provoked a primal response, a release of pressure. Romania were on the brink of something special. Balbo would pull one back with fifteen minutes remaining after a fumble by Florin Prunea, but Iordănescu’s side would hold on for the win, sparking delirium at the final whistle. 

Another dramatic, breathless game would see Romania’s quarter-final with Sweden go to penalties where, once again, the Tricolores were undone, but USA ’94 remains the most memorable summer in Romanian football history; when anything was possible.

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